Some Reflections

It has been approximately 30 years since computers were introduced into education for teaching and learning. At first, the computer was an object to study and it was important to learn programming and algorithmic languages. The widespread use of computers created the notion of an "information society," even though the term was never clearly defined.

A number of topics in textbooks were written that did not require access to a computer. The algorithmic approach to solving problems was stressed. A group of us worked for many years on a series of books, sponsored by the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG), entitled Algorithms, Computation and Mathematics. The books were used in a few schools for a short period of time. However, the effort required a great deal of teacher training, which was not available.

Early Education Efforts

Companies like IBM, Philco Ford, Hewlett-Packard, Control Data, Univac and Digital Equipment Corp. soon saw the potential of the education market. For example, an early commercially available machine, the IBM 1500, was multimedia since it involved a computer, an audio-recorder and a film projector. Though some interesting courseware was developed, it had a very short existence, as it was too expensive for educators to justify; IBM took it off the market after just a few years.

T.H.E. Journal's charter issue featured the TICCIT (Time-Share Interactive, Computer-Controlled Information Television) System, a project by MITRE Corp., funded by the NSF. They selected community colleges on which to focus their efforts. Cost was again very high, as it required an on-site field engineer and was still too experimental; it was not on the market long.

Another very large time-sharing system -- the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) System, heavily financed by Control Data Corp. and developed at the University of Illinois, had some success in both the U.S. and in Europe, but was also discontinued after a number of years.

The first international issue of T.H.E. Journal (Sept./ Oct. 1978), "Computers in Education -- Worldwide," included an article by Anita Kollerbaur and Louise Yngstrom of the University of Stockholm, Sweden, entitled "Princess -- A Project with a User-Oriented Interdisciplinary Approach to Computer-Based Education."

The objective of the Princess Project was to determine how best to use the computer in primary and secondary education. They used PLATO terminals connected to a DEC-10 system in Stockholm as part of their hardware configuration. Teachers assisted with course construction and students with course evaluation. This project seemed successful as its directors reported on their efforts at many international conferences. However, their financing, which ran from 1973/74 to the end of fiscal year 1980/81, was discontinued and the project ended.

During my position as Director for Instructional Systems and responsible for the use of technology in the school district of Philadelphia, Pa., I was involved with a number of the early attempts at using computers for instruction. As with similar projects they were of fairly short duration and seldom replicated. This may have been due, in part, to the following reasons:

* Computers were very expensive, which made their general use in education totally unrealistic.

* Projects were originally conceived as research or feasibility studies and therefore, were, for the most part, ignored by the education community.

* The existing hardware and software led to the design of courseware so poor that it did not convince any teacher to use it.

* Rumors that using computers in education would result in replacing teachers antagonized the teaching profession.

* Support from administrators, members of Boards of Education and the community at large was practically non-existent.

* Innovators were resented by the majority of faculty members, and individuals received no or little recognition.

* Systems were too cumbersome and complicated to operate and replicate.


Enter the Microcomputer

Though the advent of the small and relatively inexpensive computer led to a greater number of computers for teaching and learning, their use was not assured. However, parents were becoming more aggressive, influenced by advertisements that jobs would be available in which computers were being used. The rest of the economy was undergoing a growing recession and increasing unemployment, but vocational skills in data processing were sought.

Educators were challenged to make students more employable and to utilize technology to help achieve educational excellence. Emphasis on Drill and Practice software was to provide students with a broader set of "basics." Meanwhile the use of the early programming languages like FORTRAN, BASIC, ALGOL, COBOL, etc. was to help students get jobs.

Like computer-managed instruction, computer-assisted instruction tried to individualize instruction to improve its quality. The use of technology in instruction has been imposed upon educational institutions by technological advances. Much of what has happened in education has been in response to pressures from the outside, and developments are so rapid that we seem to be in a continuous transient phase. In fact, the tools become obsolete at such a rapid rate that even now, 30 years after its emergence, one has the feeling of being still at the beginning.

However, it is generally agreed that the computer, instead of remaining just another vehicle like TV or radio that delivers the same old pedagogies, may qualitatively change the educational scene. By providing appropriate student-centered teaching and learning, the computer can free existing systems of education from their rigidity, centralization, and curriculum- and examination-driven environment.

Yet there is also growing apprehension regarding information technologyís rapid advance, and that much of the investments in research, development and implementation have widened the gap between the haves and have-nots.

What We Have Learned

Technology, when properly utilized, improves teaching, learning and the operation of educational institutions. Proper utilization depends upon a number of factors, several of which are described below.

Some Pre-Conditions

  • An appreciation by administration of the financial, resource and operational requirements and the possible results.
  • A commitment by top-level administrators to become involved in decision making and an understanding of implementation strategies.
  • A commitment to a policy of support for teacher training, maintenance, software purchases, and research and assessment tools.


  • Providing educational institutions with high-quality software integrated into the curriculum, though it is getting better, remains a central issue. The software industry needs to continue its training opportunities for teachers and its incentives for the use of its products.
  • There is an incredible increase in the amount of software produced to carry out research, improve instruction and manage the educational process. Costs of software are decreasing due to volume.
  • The "open learning environment" constantly available to students of all ages, parents, workers and the general public engaged in life-long learning, requires a wide variety and greater availability of resources.
  • The concept of standardization of hardware is attractive but not always achievable. Systems and configurations need upward compatibility to ensure that investments in software and courseware development are not wasted.
  • On-going budgeting for resources, often forgotten after initial expenditures, must occur routinely.
  • Greater numbers of total systems integrators are entering the education market. These firms provide hardware design and implementation, software selection, teacher training and help with integrating computers into the curriculum.

Networking and Communication

  • Electronic networking has become an important feature of educational computing. It exists between machines and among people. Individuals are increasingly using the Internet to communicate and share experiences.
  • Distance education via telecommunications is widely accepted.
  • The concept of the "virtual university" with little or no attendance at a physical institution has grown and is encouraged.
  • Students are developing new skills to access, organize and synthesize information received via the Internet.


  • Teachers need incentives to incorporate technology into their educational programs. They must see benefits to their own teaching and to their studentsí learning.
  • A new role for the teacher has been identified, one of facilitator and coach, thus establishing a new relationship between teacher and learner.
  • Teachers play the key role in introducing information technology in the school.
  • Once faculty members perceive that computer applications improve student learning, barriers to implementation will be overcome. Developing efficiency requires on-going access to training, the opportunity for a variety of experiences, and faculty responsibility for decision making.
  • Technology must be used by well-qualified and well-trained teachers at the right time, in the right way, within the right environment.

Instruction and Evaluation

  •  We are breaking with the "credit for contact" model and considering alternatives to lecture as a delivery mode. Students are not place-bound or time-constrained.
  • Grouping students and cooperative learning are facilitated.
  • Surveys have indicated that use of computer technology has improved teaching and learning. Integrating computers into classroom instruction is resulting in better student achievement.
  • A poll taken in March-April, 1997 by Jostens Learning Corp. and the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) among 1,001 teachers and superintendents states, among other things, the following:


    • "While the importance of linking schools to the Internet is often in the news, Ö computers are most frequently used for classroom instruction, teaching basic computer skills, or record keeping. Research on the Internet accounts for less than a third of computer use in schools.

      "More than two-thirds said computers are used primarily to teach computer-based skills such as word processing, graphics or spreadsheets, or in conjunction with educational software to teach academic subjects."


Specific policies and strategies for using technology in teaching and learning are in place in most educational institutions, though significant variances exist among faculty and institutions in their willingness to experiment with it. However, use of technology should not be seen as the cure-all for all the problems in education. "Electronic classrooms," though not yet well defined, are being promoted as one solution. Whether this means more computers in the classroom or connection to the Internet, technology is still only a tool.

What is emerging is a highly connected network providing access to resources, tools and information across disciplinary, institutional, and national and international boundaries. It will soon be difficult to imagine a course not on the Web. However, the challenge is to deal with the technologies at hand, which are quickly outdated, while not being overwhelmed by the new and exciting opportunities available and promised.

Over the past 30 years, educators have been using the computer to affect change and to improve teaching and learning. Many efforts can be noted and much has been achieved.

I wish to thank my colleagues for sharing their ideas and experiences in T.H.E. Journal through these years and hope they shall continue to do so.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.